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Local politicians turning to Twitter

BY JORDAN FRIES | FEBRUARY 02, 2010 7:30 AM

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Janelle Rettig discovered her appointment to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors by logging on to her Twitter account.

Rettig, who started using Twitter last year and Tweets three to four times per week, said the social-networking site has already made an impact on her job.

Dispensing information and campaign slogans in 140 characters or fewer is a fad that gained some popularity in Washington with President Obama.

During halftime of a recent college basketball game, the president leaned back in his seat, tugged out his cell phone, and logged into the Twitterverse to inform his “tweeps” of an early game departure.

Obama is one of more than 6 million people worldwide who operate a Twitter account — including a growing number of politicians using the popular social-networking tool as a means to better communicate with constituents.

The popularity of Twitter has trickled down to reach Iowa politicians — both local and across the state — who in the last year have adopted the quick and relatively easy method of sharing information.

Rettig said she relies on Twitter for receiving a majority of her breaking news.

“It’s really fascinating and gives you a sense of awe when all these people are communicating and receiving information at the same time,” she said.

Gov. Chet Culver, Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, and Sen. Charles Grassley all have Twitter accounts, and Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan started Tweeting in 2009. Johnson County Auditor Tom Slockett also Tweets at least four times a week. Most update their own accounts.

Tim Albrecht, the director of communications for Terry Branstad’s campaign for governor, updates Branstad’s Twitter at least six times a week, depending on the frequency of news.

“Twitter is a valuable tool in getting our campaign message out there and responding to voters,” Albrecht said. “It allows us to answer the concerns of a large number of constituents in a short amount of time.”

Albrecht said Branstad chose to announce his comeback campaign for re-election with a Tweet, hoping to reach a wider audience.

Fellow Republican gubernatorial candidates Christopher Rants, Rod Roberts, and Bob Vander Plaats also operate Twitter accounts.

UI political-science Professor Bob Boynton, who studies Twitter use and posts the findings on his blog, said he believes Twitter is becoming essential in American politics. During Obama’s State of the Union, for instance, users flung 81,369 Tweets onto the web in the span of a day, according to Boynton’s trackings.

But some students aren’t yet convinced of its effect.

“I’m sure politicians are trying to reach a new bracket of young voters with Twitter, but I still prefer to get my news the traditional way,” said UI senior Jordin Flory. “It’s not useful for me personally.”

Still, local politicians such as Rettig say political life pre-Tweet seems very primitive now.

“It’s become so much easier to be an activist and start these social movements,” she said. “I’m not sure how we organized campaigns before.”

Rettig has been Tweeting from the Iowa Bike Summit in Des Moines all week.

“I really wish I would have gotten into Twitter earlier, but I come from a generation that wasn’t raised with a phone in our hands,” she said. “But legislators are starting to encourage it, and more elected officials are beginning to like the idea.”


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